The problem with our schools is not that they are not what they used to be, but that they are what they used to be. *
I saw this quote recently and wanted to write something about it as it struck a resonating chord in me. But before we talk about schools, let’s think about medicine for a just a moment. Who among us would go to a doctor who was still running his (or her) practice as if medical knowledge had not changed in recent decades? Do you not expect your physician to stay up-to-date on medical procedures rather than rely on what was common practice some time ago?
There is so much more knowledge now about the brain and learning than there ever has been before. (**If you are interested, you can read a bit about that at the end of the blog.) Why is it, then, that so many classrooms are stuck in practices and procedures that are the same as what was happening in classrooms decades ago? Why have we not expected teaching to change as science reveals more about how the brain learns? Rote memorization of bits of information (information that is, incidentally, available at the touch of our fingers these days) is not a wonderful learning experience. I think every teacher is exposed to Bloom’s taxonomy of learning in teacher training. Guess what the “lowest” level of learning is: knowledge, meaning the knowing of factual things. We need students who can think, can solve problems, can analyze situations and apply knowledge. The world is increasing in complexity, and we need to develop minds that are prepared for such a world.
Now, this is not just about technology, which, in and of itself is a rather neutral thing, in my opinion. Technology can be used in the classroom without there being changes in teaching practice. For instance, I have seen SmartBoards being used in classrooms as a kind of glorified worksheet, thus really not being used to change to instructional practices that are “brain-friendly”. On the other hand, there are many technologically outdated classrooms where students are doing deep thinking and learning.
When a teacher does step out and begin to change practice, often the first reaction from parents is to challenge the change. I see this time and time again as I work closely with teachers in the area of mathematics. Parents of students call up the teachers or send notes demanding to see pages of math work being sent home that look exactly like the pages being sent home when the parents were in school themselves. Parents wonder why things need to change. They wonder why there have to be so many words on the math page; why just getting a correct answer is not enough; why a student should justify his reasoning; why drawing a representation of a problem is important. In general, the parents want the math to look like it did when they were in school. They might even say, “That way was good enough for me, it is good enough for my kids!” Can you imagine someone saying that to a doctor, asking for an outdated procedure?!
Sometimes we need to really ask probing questions of ourselves, and I hope you will now do just that: Are you a teacher or parent who is “stuck in the past”, assuming that mathematics instruction should not change? Have you considered the science behind the changes? Have you asked how the changes can help your students or children?
Do you know some parents or teachers who would like to probe this idea further? Let’s arrange a math meeting!
*I could not find a source to whom to give credit for the quote. If you know this, by all means, let me know and I will give due credit.
**Some notes on the science of learning.
In recent years we have learned so very much about the science of the brain and about how people learn. We have amazing tools such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines, Functional MRI (f MRI) machines, and NMRI (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imagery) that help us “see” how people think and learn. The electroencephalogram (EEG) gives us readings about the electrical output of the brain. Magnetoencephalography (MEG) uses high-tech sensors that are super-cooled, liquid-helium, and superconductive to locate faint magnetic fields that are generated by the brain’s neural networks. They’ve been used to detect brainwave patterns in people. These tools also can help us track, for example, how much brain activity occurs during problem solving. Still further, there is Positron Emission Tomography (PET), an imaging device that reveals where certain areas of the brain are “working”. All of these tools have been combined with studies to reveal much about the brain learns. And these high-tech tools are just the beginning. The research about how people learn best is vast!